Do you dream of a fairer world, a cherished earth, a more peaceful community? And do you interact with children? As a parent or teacher or aunty or kind member of the public?
Nuzzle in, you. This post has your very name on it.
A few years ago, during my Masters at LSE, I spent three months studying the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child under the tireless child rights advocate, Peter Townsend. The course was heavy but inspiring and I vowed to work on child rights for the rest of my life.
I went on to work for Oxfam as a campaigner, and imagined I would end up working on the rights of children through social policy.
And it would be easy to see me now, sitting in my pyjamas drinking tea, and wonder what happened to that vow.
But in actual fact,when it comes to human rights and social change, I feel as powerful in my role as a parent as I did as a campaigner.
When we studied the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) we covered poverty, child labour, hunger, trafficking, homelessness, but we didn’t ever look at the home and family life.
I’ve come to believe that the UNCRC can inspire us to observe children’s rights as parents and teachers and neighbours, and that this in turn this will lead to societal change that makes all those huge, global issues, much less likely to occur. And, if we can raise a generation who have had their rights observed, the impact on global social justice will be boundless.
Unicef say “The Convention changed the way children are viewed and treated – i.e., as human beings with a distinct set of rights instead of as passive objects of care and charity.”
Unicef is slightly optimistic when it uses past tense here – I think we are in the process of changing our view on children, but things haven’t quite got there yet. This post is going to take 10 everyday, simple habits that impede children’s rights, and consider a way to change them.
I did begin by going through the Convention, article by article, and pulling out the relevant bits – freedom to express views (article 12) and to impart information and ideas (article 13) and the right to dignity (article 23) but it got almost as heavy as my Masters, so I stopped that.
Instead, the guiding principles of the Convention, cover most bases:
All rights apply to all children without exception.
It is the State’s obligation to protect children from any form of discrimination and to take positive action to promote their rights.
All actions concerning the child shall take full account of his or her best interests. The State shall provide the child with adequate care when parents, or others charged with that responsibility, fail to do so.
Every child has the inherent right to life, and the State has an obligation to ensure the child’s survival and development.
The child has the right to express his or her opinion freely and to have that opinion taken into account in any matter or procedure affecting the child.
And actually, these guiding principles can be distilled even further, I reckon. I think most adults have a good sense of what their rights are, and when their rights are being abused or repressed. This means that it might be helpful to think about upholding child rights simply by asking the question “how would I hope to be treated in this situation?”
Here are ten things lovers of human rights and warriors of social justice do regularly to impede the rights of children. We can break habits, and form new ones, humans are amazing like that. Let’s do this….
1 – Taking things off children. We do it in the name of safety sometimes; snatch scissors from a toddler or a phone from a baby. Sometimes we just do it absentmindedly- we want something they have, so we just take it. This act is discriminatory – excluding children from using something that they would like to.
What to do instead: Even with the very smallest child we can ask for something back, and explain why we would like it. If we are patient, and allow them to fully process the request (for young children this can take longer than you think!) with our hand out, it is highly likely that they will return it. We can explain things to children just as we do other adults.
We can also question our motivation for taking it – is it really unsafe for a toddler to use sharp things? I don’t believe so. At all. Juno has been picking up knives with our supervision since she could first handle any items. She has learnt to use sharp things very carefully as a result. Being committed to child rights means questioning a lot of assumptions we have about our children’s abilities!
2 – Talking about children in front of them. “Ah, yeah Ramona, woke up so early this morning!” – it is such a seemingly harmless conversation to have, sharing stories about our children while they are there. But would we EVER do this to an adult? Can you even imagine it? Being in a room with a friend, discussing the toilet habits / sleeping problems/ hilarious anecdote about another friend sitting next to you? It doesn’t protect dignity and privacy and you can stop it!
What to do instead: Weigh up the reasons for sharing that anecdote. If you need advice or support, consider sharing it in private, away from your children. But you can also ask your child, if they are there, if they mind you sharing a story. Or, you can include your child in it “Oh, Ramona, you woke up early this morning didn’t you – were you super keen to get up?” – involve them in the conversation as we would an adult. This goes even for the tiniest baby. Defend your newborns dignity and it will be a parental habit formed for their whole life.
3 – Laughing at children. Children can be hilarious, sometimes in a purposeful way – laugh right along to their jokes. But they are also funny sometimes in an intriguing, surprising way – and I’d you to consider not laughing at children. Sometimes, adults find it hard not to smirk, to catch each others eyes and laugh at our children as they go about their lives. Just yesterday Ramona said “Don’t laugh at me, mum!” when I had giggled at something in a kind hearted way. It pulled me up short – even our loving chuckles as they fumble a word infringe on their personhood. I love laughter and joyfulness – it has to be up to you to discern whether your laughter fits with the idea of your child as a rights bearer.
What to do instead: Consider things from their point of view . It is tough not being able to reach things you need, learning all the unwritten rules of society, figuring out who you are. The very last thing they need is “kind hearted” adults giggling along. Dwell on this and it should help you hold it together when you want to snort-in-love.
4 – Picking babies up We get rights all mixed up on this one – we think it is our right to pick up our baby. Well, erm, your baby isn’t really, exactly, yours, you see. You don’t own her. She is not a possession. She is a person. With her own body.
Or we think we are helping when we pick up another child when they’ve fallen or a baby when they are crying. Would you like a stranger to come up to you and pick you up? Nope. It’s the same. It is.
What to do instead: The alternative isn’t not picking babies up. Babies love to be in arms, it is one of the biggest ways babies and adults connect. PICK UP BABIES! But, do what you would like to be done to you: ASK THEM! Yep, even a newborn. If babies are spoken to this way they soon respond. The “I’m going to pick you up now” spoken to a baby soon becomes “Can I give you a cuddle?” to a young child. This practice of consent from birth could change the world.
5 – Wiping children’s noses Sometimes we do things to kids in the name of health and hygiene. Sweeping in to wipe their nose for example – I used to pride myself on a swipe that came from behind Ramona’s head, cleared all snot that wouldn’t interfere with her play time. Yep: stepping all over her right to influence decisions that affect her.
What to do instead: Say “I see you have a wet nose, can I wipe it for you, or would you like to wipe it yourself? and then wait. It was Pennie Brownlee that opened my eyes to the possibility that most children, if given the option to not have a huge slimeball of snot dripping into their mouth would take it! Same goes with dirty nappies- in a respectful relationship, giving the child the option to come and get their nose wiped or their nappy changed, and given time to process it, is likely to result in them coming over for a wipe/ change themselves.
6 – Deciding things without their input “Right! We are off! Let’s go, COME ON!” The amount of times I have seen parents suddenly decide it is time to leave the park and expect their children with no warning to come right along happily! We plan our days, our holidays, our visits, our lunches, our leaving times, every thing with very little input from our children because we think we know best. And it is a complete flouting of their human right to have a say in things that impact them.
What to do instead: Give them an opportunity to influence plans. This grows with the child; they are VERY good at letting people know when they are ready to have a say! It might start with a two year old choosing what friends to have a playdate with, and then can grow into a four year old helping the family decide where to go on holiday. Contrary to what people may think, having children as fully fledged decision makers is not a burden – it is a great joy, and it leads to a far, far more harmonious family life.
7 – Photographing (and sharing) them without permission This one that really challenges me, and I have been on quite a journey with it. (In fact, you can see that my Instagram pictures are far less frequent as I try and do this 100% consensually. When we are snap happy and post these photos publically we are in danger of disregarding children’s right to privacy. And don’t get me started on when we use those photos to publically shame our children… *ragey face*
What to do instead I do have a couple of friends who have sworn never to post anything about their children online ever…. I, erm, am clearly not there! I simply ask their permission to take a photo, and then ask them if I can share it online.
8 – Putting children in Time Out Yeah baby I’m calling it! Time Out is a Human Right’s Abuse! Putting a child on a step and not letting them move does not allow our children to experience the right to be a full participant of the community, it erodes their dignity and suppresses their right to have a say in things that are important to them. It just shuts things down according to an adult’s, often quite arbitrary, rules.
What to do instead In our family, we generally feel that if a hiccup has occurred, it is because the child needs MORE connection, not less. Not to be excluded from our love, but to be encompassed in it. So we go for something that is highly connecting. Some families however, might have found Time Out to be helpful in cultivating a thinking space. If you like rules and things, you could consider coming up with rules that EVERYONE agrees with, and then coming up with the matching consequence. A family guide book by consensus – whole schools are run on this principle. (Personally, we go for less rules, more connection.)
9 – Telling them to stop crying It is hard to hear our children crying, either because we are sad for them, or triggered by them, or because we think its not worthy of tears. We “Shush” our babies and say “Don’t be silly, cheer up” to our kids. It’s probably not surprising to hear but: every child has the right to cry, to feel things, and to express their feelings as they wish. (Even if it was because their nutella wrap got torn in two.)
What to do instead: The HuffPost recently published a great article about how accepting feelings is the last frontier in parenting. But it doesn’t have to be a huge one to change. Firstly, if we are being triggered, we need to deal with that. And then we need to cultivate the practice of validation. “I hear you.” “You are upset”. “You wanted that.” “It sounds like you are feeling sad.” These words of validation, of letting your child express themselves, becomes second nature when faced with tears.
10 – Telling them what to wear. I would LOVE to have kids that wear cool retro style, ironically sloganned tee shirts with perfect pineaple print shorts. Instead, Ramona and Juno tend to opt for either fourth hand pilled fleecey onesies, bright pink tutus or nothing at all. But, it is more important to me that they know they are in charge of their clothes and their body and things that effect them. Their bodies, their choice, right?
What to do instead: Create more time in the mornings for them to choose their own clothes – with support if needed, particularly at the start. And mostly stop having an opinion on what you think they should wear. It is minutiae that doesn’t impact you in the least (as far as I can see) but very much impacts a child’s perception of himself in the world.
Supporting child rights doesn’t have to mean throwing things we know to be good out the window- but we do need to make the rights of children the framework for which we hang our family life on.
I think there are quite a lot more – for example, not forcing them to eat certain things, not forcing them to kiss or cuddle. But I feel like this list of ten is a good starting point – possibly the easiest to change. Do you have any that you are working on at the moment?
And also, before I sign off, I want to disclose fully that I am not able to say “I am a true upholder of child rights!” – some days I am great at it, and other times my only aim is to try and stay sane. But I have absolutely seen my own child rights record improve by being committed to working on these everyday interactions between myself and the children in my life.
I want to live in a world where everyone can experience human rights – and I believe this world is being built not only in UN offices but also within kitchens, playgrounds, schools. Places where children play, where they have their rights observed. Where adults change ingrained habits and children take their place as fully human, with all the rights attached.
A fairer world begins in the home!
This is part of my slow burning Parenting for Social Justice series. Read all about Non Violent Communication for Parents here